Speed Farming



The farm news (DTN/Progressive Farmer) reports that Finland is boasting a farm tractor that can go 80 mph on snow. How’s that for technological progress? As far as I can tell, the speed is not meant for farming— crops won’t grow on snow.  However, farm machinery companies in both Europe and the United States are touting their latest models that can hit 50 mph on the open road. This is not mere technological fantasy trying to find an outlet: many farmers today spend about as much time moving their rigs from one farm to another as they do in the fields, so having a souped-up road gear makes cents if not sense. Field speeds are increasing too, and that makes even more cents. Farm machinery engineers say that increasing field speed from 10 mph to 12 mph increases productivity by 20%. How about that? With my kind of arithmetic that means that when you bury a monster tractor in the mud and need three more monsters plus three snapped cables plus ten hours to get it unburied, as happened in my neck of the woods one spring,  your productivity decreases (four tractors times zero) to a minus 80%.

The farmer friend who told me about that four tractor debacle has two hobbies, bird watching and monster farm watching. He recently observed an operation in his neighborhood that has contrived a drawbar hitch-up that enables one tractor to pull four anhydrous ammonia tanks at once. Awesome. That rig must need half a township to turn around in. My friend jokes that he tried to get all of this outfit’s machinery, parked in a field one evening, into a single photo but couldn’t because one frame on his camera couldn’t encompass it all.

Installing drainage tile underground is an example of speed farming that is very near and dear to me because I did that in the slow old days. The first time I made a hundred dollars in one week was when I operated a ditching machine, inserting farm drainage tile underground. I thought I was going to get rich. The ditcher was a sort of truck affair holding a big wheel fitted with little bucket shovels around its circumference.  As the machine inched across the field, the wheel turned and the shovels dug a ditch as much as five feet deep. A “tile layer” guy lifted the clay or concrete tiles, each about a foot long, by hand into the ditch one at a time with a long handled hooked tool and placed them snug against the previous tile. It was hard work and if the machine operator went fast, that is maybe .01 mph, the tile layer had to place the tile precisely in the correct position in the ditch at the first try or fall behind and have to stop the ditcher until the tile got straightened properly in place. That meant displeasing the machine operator immensely. Not a good idea. I eventually graduated to operator and my tile layers loved me because I was kind enough to creep along at something like .001 mph so they didn’t have to work quite as hard. Laid about as many tile per hour because I didn’t have to stop so often.

Fast forward now, and I mean that literarily, to the present. Using sheer horsepower, a huge tractor pulls a plow like affair that opens the soil to the required depth, inserts and covers the drainage tile all in one pass, uncoiling it from big rolls of plastic tile, all at a speed equal to that of any other cultivating tool which is to say about 8 to 10 mph. Nothing makes me feel so old as to watch that amazing rig in operation.

I am sure the old adage about haste making waste is going to apply here. Let us say we reach the awesome ability to plant the nation’s entire corn crop in two days. Just think how wonderful it will be to get the job done in April so we can go mushroom hunting in May and watch the whole crop killed by late frost. But hey, no sweat, we can replant it all in two days. Reminds me of a friend who got the quaint notion one year that he could make a killing on oats. He decided he would plant 200 acres worth. But the weather did not cooperate and he got only 50 acres planted before it was time to do corn. The oats price dropped precipitously that year and he figured he lost $10 an acre on the stuff. “Just think how lucky I was to have sowed only 50 acres,” he said.

I know things work that way in tile ditching. When I first took over as an operator, I set the grade line markers wrong and laid a short length of tile uphill so to speak (water drains through the tile by gravity). Because I was only going .001 mph or so, I discovered the error after only about 50 feet. At today’s speed, I’d have half a section to do over and get fired to boot.

Once in the dear dead days beyond recall, my cousin, Eddie Rall, and I decided to determine which of us owned the slowest tractor. We lined up side by side, throttled down in low gear as far as we could without killing the engines and inched across the barnyard. I can still hear Eddie cackle triumphantly when he came in second and won.


Where I live, “no-till” means drenching the fields in herbicide and planting through this carnage. Being a beekeeper, I like to remind people not to spray during the day when temperatures are above 50 degrees. Herbicides kill bees as well as pesticides do when the bees are drenched with them along with the fields. Of course, I believe organic farming is best for us all–farmers and their pocketbooks, eaters, and bees!

Don’t kill the buzz!


We were quite pleased to have a friend here in Latvia tell us he was impressed with our hay and he is a guy that spends his summer months cutting hay in Oregon, so something is working. Here are our two machines side by side

Like you I usually opt for the smallest machine that will get the job done use garden tractors for many things and cut hay with a New Holland 456 trailer mower hooked to a 28HP CA Allis Chalmers while most of my farmer friends use discbinds run by 100HP tractors.I have less than $1000 in the NH and CA and I figure I’m putting up a better quality hay.

The Brown’s crop land went from 1/2″ infiltration rate per hour of rainfall to now an infiltration rate of 8″ per hour because they changed their practices to no-till with cover crop of polycultures. I don’t know about you, but I don’t see a need for field drains if your soil can handle 8″ of rain an hour.

For the gentle readers, if you’re a broadacre farmer and you’re still tilling and leaving soil exposed, please give this video a watch. This is Gabe Brown, a farmer just like you, explaining what he’s done. It’ll be the best time you’ve spend watching video this year. https://youtu.be/9yPjoh9YJMk

Homegrown 1954 "Too old to die young" - Me May 15, 2015 at 12:13 pm

Give me forty acres and I’ll turn this rig around, it’s the easiest way that I’ve found. Some guys can turn it on a dime and turn it right downtown…..

James and Dan, Funny thing. When I was operating that ditcher and also when working for SCS designing tile drainage systems, I would often say the things you guys are saying and I would be hooted for my ignorance. I suppose the whole truth is somewhere in between, if there is a whole truth. Where I live, tiling is sometimes essential but then I think that if 40% of this land is being tiled to grow corn for car fuel, maybe it would be better to let it stay wet and grow rice or frog legs. Now they are putting in tile lines in every 40-50 feet or closer, and when it rains, the water flushes into the creeks faster than a toilet flush and the creeks and rivers overflow much more frequently than fifty years ago. Gene

In my exploits and travels around the Great Plains, I cringe every time I see these giant drain tile systems and machinery in connection with some monoculture. It boggles my mind that those who lament not having enough water when they need it are the some folks who drain it off their farm land. As James indicated above, there are far better ways to deal with water on a landscape than draining it away when it is so badly needed. Yo want to hold water in the soils, not drain it away. Whether through some form of earthworks, such as swales and keyline plowing; or better by no-till cover copping systems, there is always better ideas than draining a field. As Gabe Brown has proven on his farmland and pastures, through no-till, cover cropping and growing polycultures, he increased his land’s water handling and holding capacity 8X from his traditional monoculture row cropping days. We simply have to be willing to see things differently, because when we observe how creation was designed, we can mimic those systems and processes and end up with lower overhead, higher productivity, and higher profitability on our broadacre operations. You talk about efficient, Gabe and Paul Brown spend more time in their recliners than they do in a tractor seat and their lands are more productive than ever and they are more profitable today than they ever have been all the while they are building soil, not losing it. That’s efficiency!

I read this on my iPhone waiting for trucks to return while chopping clover for silage.
Across the road is a 500 hp chopper loading 40ft trailers in 1/4 the time I load a 20ft tandem axle truck.
Not very long ago hauling with tandem axle trucks was big time.
I am thankful my 1982 tractor has a/c.

I am sure the NSA has a drone that can plant and harvest corn and beans all controlled from a secret location. I guess then all the farmers can collect unemployment while mushroom hunting.

On a serious note, the frost free date has to be getting earlier. I planted green beans on April 29th and I have never done that ever. (May 10th is our frost free date) I was so paranoid I watched the long range forecast for several days after that planting. They have all come up…for now.

Lastly, I do take heart from talking to a local farmer that is trying more cover crops and looking for ways to reduce or eliminate herbicides from corn and beans. This fellow farms around 6000 acres and he is concerned on the direction of big Ag too. (He has a spray rig that will go 40 mph on the highway)

“how wonderful it will be to get the job done in April so we can go mushroom hunting in May”
Your brains have calcified if you still think we’ll need farmers to plant the crops: With no DoT regulations in the fields, self-driving planters and combines are most likely to be rolled out before driverless cars, so you can go mushroom hunting or fishing in April too! 😉

Even better, your aerial and submarine personal drones would have given you the best locations for both. Isn’t that a great way to have technology take over everything pleasurable from life?

I always thought that one of the best things about farming and ranching was the chance to slow down and look around while you work. Hard to check out orioles’ nests and wildflowers when you’re whizzing along at anything more than walking speed. But I do admit I really appreciate the backhoe when it’s time to clean the irrigation ditches…

We have a small 45 horsepower tractor and that is big enough for us on our hilly terrain, but we have opted to use a two wheel tractor for many jobs around our small holding as it is kinder to the land, especially in wet weather. Our tractor does not even make it out of the barn unless it is an emergency in wet weather. I dread to think what damage one of those monster machines would do on our land, here in Latvia and in Finland, a country just to the north of us and renowned for its lakes, so not exactly a dry place

We have had a year in the Yakima Valley in Washington state where so far the snow in the mountains, which provides the bulk of our summer irrigation, has been very deficient. Surprisingly although we rely on irrigation, we do have some tile drainage around because some of the areas farmed around here were once wetlands. Around here we often wish it was possible to rely on natural precipitation, but that isn’t very practical. Count your blessings if you have natural water to even consider draining. But remember- once the water is gone downstream you can’t use it anymore.

Discharging tile drain water directly to streams can decrease the time for natural systems to supply water treatment to deal with water pollutants such as excess nutrients and agricultural chemicals, heavy metals etc. This can contribute to downstream flooding and add to excessive nutrients downstream, in turn leading to eutrophication such as the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, which most likely destroys far more edible protein in the form of seafood than the corn or other crops grown on the drained acreage could supply, plus adding significantly to the greenhouse gases implicated in climate change.

Alternatively to installing tile drainage as a general practice, Permaculturists build swales (think contour ditches with the excavated soil laid on the down slope side of the ditch) to keep the water on the landscape for gradual use as naturally simulated irrigation, while providing beneficial plant and wildlife habitat and contributing to in-stream base flow when it is most needed. Therefore, although it is true that installing tile drainage can improve ground for crops such as corn and soybeans or small grains, maybe the operator should think through whether that is the highest and best use of the land and water.

Thinking thoroughly about any drainage project might result in better long term sustainable agricultural management, whether the machinery involved moves at a crawl or eighty miles per hour. Similarly with any agricultural endeavor: simply doing things faster, whether: drainage or, cultivation or tillage or feeding livestock doesn’t mean they are done better or even that they should be done at all. A case in point (to pose a rhetorical question) : are not the massive feed lots commonly referred to as: ” CAFO’s”, which much of the sustainable agriculture community and the general populace find to be repulsive, another attempt to do agriculture bigger, better and faster?

In that vein of thought, I think our biggest error as a species was when we started using fueled agricultural machinery instead of draft animals and manual labor. One tends to think long and hard about digging a ditch by hand as opposed to digging it with powerful machinery.

I hear those tile machines can also stretch and collapse the tile causing them to go back much later and dig out the collapsed tile and redo it! lol There is an ohio company that has a similar system but it lays 2″ (that’s right two inch) tile down about 24′ with a bigtile plow. The tile are spaced about twenty feet apart so water will drain even faster. My biggest worry is that small tile will fill up with sediment rendering the tile useless and have to be retiled but at the rate the land is filling with houses and warehousesI’ll probably be dead by then and my nephew who puts in sewer pipes in those places will have a job to go to.Sidenote, the farm i grew up on the neighbors tile drained into our little creek and i would look at it and marvel . It was a 3-4 inch flat bottom tiles that had been put in by hand and horse drawn plow.

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